Following an environmental ethic that emphasizes environmental stewardship can support sustainable development, but until recently, our ethic in the United States has been growth at almost any cost. When Europeans settled here more than two centuries ago, resources seemed limitless, and a frontier ethic was adopted. Forests were cleared and land was farmed until it would no longer produce, and then settlers moved on to new areas and began again (Chiras & Reganold, 2010). Classic examples of this ethic are evidenced by the total extermination of an estimated five billion passenger pigeons, the bulk of which occurred in a mere 50 years (Ponting, 2007), and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, where poor agricultural practices were largely to blame for the total destruction of soil productivity in the Great Plains region (USGCRP, n.d.).
As our population increased and resources became scarcer, we began to move away from this ethic, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that concern for our planet really took hold. Unfortunately, the laws and regulations that were implemented in the 70s have not been enough to save us from ourselves. Worldwide, population is expected to reach eight billion by 2025, and even though the US currently only makes up about 5% of the global population, we consume 30% of the world’s resources (Chiras & Reganold, 2010).
So what is the answer? What steps need to be taken to embrace an environmental ethic and make the leap to sustainable development before it is too late? First, we need to begin thinking and acting more into the future. The decisions we make for ourselves, our communities and the world need to be with the next two hundred years in mind, rather than just the next two. In order for that happen however, policies must be implemented and incentives made available to give businesses and citizens alike the proper motivation to take positive action. By doing this, it will be possible to prosper and thrive without doing irreparable harm to our environment (Chiras & Reganold, 2010).
A good start would be to impose more green taxes. Green taxes are a kind of user fee that artificially raise the price of goods to consumers (Chiras & Reganold, 2010) and have been proven to produce two significant environmental benefits: They change behaviors by encouraging more efficient use of resources and they generate revenue for environmental clean-up (ILSR, 1994). By judicious implementation of these taxes in targeted areas, we can begin to achieve an economy that more closely embodies full-cost pricing.
Full-cost pricing is another tool that should be used to achieve sustainable development. It is a pricing strategy that fully-represents the true cost of a product or service, by including all the environmental costs incurred throughout its production. These costs could be as varied as restoring a mining location to its pre-mined condition to increases in health insurance premiums due to illnesses attributed to the manufacturing process.
Both green taxes and full-cost pricing are tactics that help balance what we pay for our goods and services with what they truly cost the planet. Another of these strategies is the removal of government subsidies which result in the undervaluation of a product. These subsidies have been implemented with good intentions to support groups or industries in an attempt to keep that sector profitably in business. However, the results can be environmentally catastrophic.
The ranching industry, for example, is subsidized by the US government in many ways, including low-cost leases for government-owned grazing lands. The use of this land at such low prices allows ranchers to keep the price of meat low, while all along overusing the land and consuming millions of tons of water and grain that could be used to feed starving populations in other parts of the globe (PublicLandsRanching.org, 2008). Removal of these subsidies and others like them, will help to ‘right price’ our society and result in a positive domino effect that will, in this case, raise meat prices, but lower meat consumption, transform exhausted range lands to their former environmental health, conserve huge quantities of water, and free up millions of tons of grain to feed people rather than cattle.
The previously mentioned economic tools pertain primarily to business and industry. However, there are several tactics we could and should be instituting on the consumer side as well. Again, there does not have to be a disconnect between being both financially and environmentally healthy. The challenge will be to show the consumer that in the longer run, both goals can be attained with the same actions. An example is the individual tax credit the federal government gave for the installation of solar-energy systems in the 1980s (Chiras & Reganold, 2010), and the current credits available for the installation of high-efficiency heating, cooling and insulation (DSIRE, 2009).
Consumer measures can be taken at levels other than the federal government as well, as evidenced when Michigan took an interesting initiative by imposing a ten cent per unit deposit on beverage cans and bottles. This refundable deposit has resulted in the return of an amazing 95% of all applicable containers, keeping them off the roadways and out of our waterways and landfills (Christiansen, Baiers & Lodes, 2009).
The aforementioned economic tools are just a few of many that support the philosophies and strategies necessary to achieve sustainable development through environmental stewardship. First and foremost, however, we must begin to think beyond today and be willing to further extend our expectations for an economic return on investment. In 1957, English economic historian, John Clapham, said, “Economic advance is not the same thing as human progress”(AbsoluteAstronomy.com, 2009). It is this type of reasoning that forms the core of sustainable development.
AbsoluteAstronomy.com. (2009). John Clapham. Retrieved October 25, 2009, from http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/topics/John_Clapham
Chiras, D. D. & Reganold, J. P. (2010). Natural Resource Conservation (10th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Christiansen, K., Baiers, B., & Lodes, E. (2009). Should there be a deposit on plastic water bottles? Retrieved October 25, 2009, from http://www.bottlebill.org/news/articles/2009/MI-1-31-ShouldThereBeA-op.htm
Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency. (2009). Federal incentives/policies for renewables & efficiency. Retrieved October 25, 2009, from http://www.dsireusa.org/incentives/incentive.cfm?Incentive_Code=US43F&re=1&ee=1
Institute for Local Self-Reliance. (1994). Green taxes. Retrieved October 25, 2009, from http://www.ilsr.org/ecotax/greentax.html
Ponting, C. (2007). A New Green History of the World. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
PublicLandsRanching.org. (2008). Ranching economics and livestock subsidies: the true cost of a hamburger. Retrieved October 25, 2009, from http://www.publiclandsranching.org/htmlres/wr_part5.htm
United States Global Change Research Program. (n.d.). Great Plains region. Retrieved October 25, 2009, from http://www.globalchange.gov/publications/reports/scientific-assessments/us-impacts/full-report/regional-climate-change-impacts/great-plains